It was the autumn of 1971 and I was flailing at tennis balls on a clay court in Hanover, N.H., trying hard to make the Dartmouth freshman team. Suddenly the varsity coach appeared at courtside. "The big kid doesn't have a backhand," he said to the freshman coach after he'd watched me for a few minutes. He said it quietly so I wouldn't hear, because he's a considerate person. Though I successfully eavesdropped, I was neither hurt nor shocked. I had already spent a decade with the knowledge that I had no backhand.
The varsity coach was John Kenfield, and, because of the kind of person he was, I hit perhaps a quarter-million backhands during the next four years. Since my Peewee baseball days I had experienced lazy coaches, egomaniacal coaches, militaristic coaches, apathetic coaches and just plain dumb coaches, but I'd never played for a caring, sensitive coach. So I hit backhands, nothing but backhands, all winter in the cavernous field house, hoping to survive more cuts when we moved outside in spring. The hollow plop of the ball echoed monotonously in the building, mingling with Coach Kenfield's calm but firm instruction: "Hit the ball. You're not a poet, you're a blacksmith."
I wanted badly to be part of Kenfield's team, even if my middling ability kept me a "scrub squadder" for three years. We scrubbers floated at the bottom of the varsity ladder and saw only occasional action against schools that Kenfield knew we'd beat. I can state without self-deprecation that we added nothing to the Dartmouth tennis team. We spent our careers playing challenge matches, usually against one another. I don't even have a particular moment of glory to report. Oh, my doubles partner and I were once the college's fourth-ranked team, a heady placing that lasted a day or two, but you can't even look it up.
Dartmouth had a scrub squad because Dartmouth had John Kenfield, or Coach K., or just Coach, which is how we knew him. He displayed a reluctance to dismiss dedicated players from the team even though they cluttered his courts and locker room. He would allow them to stay on, encourage them, help them with their games if he had time. As each afternoon's practice drew to a close and our playing turned from singles to doubles, Coach would tell his top teams to play against one another. Then he himself would fall in as a player, as often as not with three members of the scrub squad. Inevitably the team with the tall, thin, white-haired netman would win.
Because of Coach, scrub squadders wanted to stay on the team long after more reasonable athletes would have hung up their sneakers. Our dedication was to tennis, surely, but it was also to him. He inspired it while never demanding it. He asked only enthusiasm, responsibility and, most of all, sportsmanship. He never asked for a win, though he got his share: A .500 record over 17 years at a snowbound school isn't bad. Coach treated his players fairly. Up and down the ladder we'd go, our places determined by points scored on the court. Nothing could affect that except behavior; Coach would bench his best player to discipline him. He did that even as other coaches were playing their top-ranked athletes in fifth or sixth position—it's called stacking—in order to have a better chance at an upset. In recent years, when winning seemed to gain undue import, parents and other observers would urge Kenfield to stack a match against Harvard or Princeton. He sternly resisted and always played his top six in proper order. This, too, the team admired. Ken-field thought there were right and wrong ways to play tennis, styles that had nothing to do with topspin or footwork; tennis had ethical rules as well as technical ones. He didn't hand out a book that said "Do this, don't do that." Everything was understood with him. Many coaches are admired by their teams, but Kenfield was respected as well.
So it was that, when I heard last year about Coach's retirement at the age of 62, I felt melancholy. When an old teammate told me Coach's regiments were throwing a surprise bash for him in Hanover, I made plans to attend. I got in touch with my collegiate doubles partner, whom I hadn't seen in the eight years since graduation. He took a day's leave from his law practice in Nashville, hopped a flight to New York, where I live, and soon we were on our way up through the lush, spring-green countryside to New Hampshire.
The afternoon of the party Mrs. K. and Coach were out for a walk, and, as was his habit, he said, "I just want to check out who's hitting." He came round the corner of the hockey rink and saw two dozen ghosts on the varsity courts: shadows moving creakily into forehands, their faces slowly becoming recognizable, even their playing form whispering of kids who had passed through years before. Coach broke into tears, but these soon disappeared in the hubbub of breaking out the beer and getting the celebration under way.
The fete moved eventually to a private dining room at the Hanover Inn, where it became as much a reunion as an homage. A scrapbook was passed around, and we all laughed at pictures of our younger, long-haired selves. "Look at all those wooden rackets," someone said.
In the scrapbook was an article about Coach's retirement. I read it through, reviewing familiar material and learning some things I hadn't known:
"His father was the first tennis professional in the Chicago area.... Playing for his father at North Carolina, Kenfield had a 23-1 record as a junior.... Next stop was 25 miles down the road in Raleigh, N.C., where he coached the freshman team for a year before taking over as varsity coach.... Came to Hanover in 1966 because he believed in the Ivy League athletic philosophy." Coach was widely quoted in the piece, and these were all words I'd heard before: "I think a coach, of all people on a college campus, has a chance to develop a close relationship with a student. There's a great teaching opportunity there, and if we lose sight of that then we lose something very valuable.... I don't think I'll have any regrets, except that maybe I didn't do as well as I had hoped I might. Not with the won-and-lost record, but rather with some of the young people."
I finished the article and sat there thinking about it for quite a little while. It was so different from other sports-page reading of late. The bold print in The New York Times reports TENNIS STRUGGLES WITH AN UNCOURTLY IMAGE and PLAYERS SPOILED, SURVEY FINDS. The cover copy of a tennis magazine asks HAS SPORTSMANSHIP GONE OUT OF THE GAME? A photo shows Nastase gesturing with his finger, another shows Connors doing his crotch-grab, a third shows McEnroe breaking his racket with his foot.
We former teammates, who all still followed the sport, talked about this as we dined in Hanover. We talked as well about jobs, families, the old days at school. Mostly we talked about Coach.
"Know why he's leaving?" a friend asked me.
"I haven't talked to him about it," I said, "but I assume he and Mrs. K. want to go back down South. I hear they bought a place in North Carolina."
"I'm sure that's part of it," he said, "but I understand Coach is fed up. It started about five years ago. Hell, we saw it starting when we were here, but I guess it really took hold about five years ago. He started having more problems with his players. They wouldn't listen to him; they were McEnroe kids. When he'd tell them about sportsmanship, or when he'd discipline them, these guys would look at him like he was some old guy who didn't have a clue."
"Are you serious?"
"Yeah," he said. "He won't talk about it, though. I don't know if it makes him sad or makes him think he failed. He can't fight it, so he'll just retire."
"He figured he couldn't coach anymore," said another friend. "You can't coach someone you can't talk to."
"You can't coach someone who's playing a different game," said the first friend.
I looked around the room for Coach. I scanned the 50 people who had gathered to honor him. I noticed for the first time that I knew most of them, that the youngest among us had been in school when I had been. Coach had led several teams since, but the players hadn't shown up.
Understand, I don't lament the changes that have come to tennis. McEnroe's advice is probably the most realistic and well-informed: "The game improved pretty damn well by itself. They should try to let it alone." Substitute "evolved" for "improved," perhaps, and then let the recommendation stand.
Evolution can have a melancholy aspect, of course. Whenever things change—attitudes or the times themselves—there are inevitably those who are left behind. What I slowly came to realize in Hanover was that Coach had been passed by. He had played a consistent tune his whole life, but people weren't listening anymore.